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Column: As he closes in on 3,000 hits, Albert Pujols is a Hall of Famer on and off the field

The career is legendary, so the origin story might as well be too.

Albert Pujols lets his bat speak for him. That Pujols could not secure his first major league roster spot until Mark McGwire spoke up for him must be myth.

True story, McGwire says. Pujols was 21, and his professional career consisted of one year as the third baseman for the Peoria Chiefs. He reported to the St. Louis Cardinals’ camp the following spring, spraying line drives wherever he went. He was, as they say, a natural.

This was 2001, when managers still had the final say on their roster. McGwire lobbied Tony La Russa intensely: Keep Pujols in St. Louis. Then Bobby Bonilla pulled a hamstring, and Pujols filled the vacancy in left field.

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He hit 37 home runs. He never stopped hitting, ever. And to think La Russa, a Hall of Fame manager, had intended to dispatch Pujols to the minor leagues had Bonilla not gotten hurt.

“That would have been the biggest mistake of Tony’s career,” McGwire said with a chuckle, “other than bunting with me.”

Cooperstown could have called for Pujols eight years ago, but today’s round numbers are glorious. With another 10 hits, he’ll join Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Alex Rodriguez as the only players with 600 home runs and 3,000 hits.

When Clayton Kershaw follows him into the Hall of Fame, Kershaw will carry with him a unique memory of Pujols.

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“First hit I ever gave up,” Kershaw said. “Double, down the line, 3-2 curveball, 2008.”

The on-field stories about Pujols tend to run together: relentless preparation, supreme confidence, an uncanny ability to make adjustments and anticipate what adjustments the pitcher might make, and a seemingly impossible consistency of performance. “The Machine” is part clever nickname, part thumbnail biography.

Ask those who know him best, though, and the stories tend toward the personal.

“He is the most gentle, caring human being,” McGwire said.

“He has one of the greatest hearts that God could ever give. It’s just the way he treats you as a person, the way he treats people. It gives me chills even to talk about it.”

It could be the little things, like the Dominican food he had delivered to the visiting clubhouse when the Red Sox played in Anaheim this week, so the Latin players could enjoy the flavors of home. It could be the tres leches and flan desserts he brings into the clubhouse when the Angels play at Tampa Bay, made by a friend who lives there.

In his first full year in the major leagues, former Cardinals utility player Skip Schumaker scrambled to find an affordable watch, one that would look nice with a suit. He figured he could spare about $200. Pujols told Schumaker to keep his money, and to keep the watch that he tossed over.

“He just threw me this bright thing with diamonds on it,” Schumaker said. “For a guy trying to be the best player ever, to take care of the fifth outfielder was pretty cool.”

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It could be the warmth he has shown to the Dodgers’ Joc Pederson and his brother, Champ, who has Down syndrome. Pujols’ daughter Isabella does too.

After Pederson eliminated Pujols in the home run derby at the 2015 All-Star Game, Champ affectionately jumped on Pujols, and the two shared a big hug.

“That’s a big-time name. Champ gets extremely fired up over that,” Pederson said. “Then, when he sees how loving Albert is, it makes him even more comfortable. Champ loves him and looks up to him.

“Sometimes, he probably likes Albert more than me.”

When Pederson slumped after the derby, Pujols reached out and said he would be available to talk any time. McGwire and Pujols only played together for that one season in St. Louis, but today they live so close together in Orange County that their kids play together.

Pujols could have resented teammate Mike Trout as he found himself, the best player of the previous decade, obscured by the best player of this decade. Instead, the two are golf buddies. Pujols took Trout under his wing, mentored him on how to manage the demands of greatness, and told him to call or text whenever he wished.

“Any time of the night,” Trout said. “Anything off the field you need help with, or advice, he’s always there. I can’t thank him enough.”

Schumaker thought back to a spring training when players were sharing their winter adventures with one another. Schumaker talked about how he had vacationed in Hawaii. Pujols talked about how he had shipped mattresses and provided doctors to the needy in the Dominican Republic.

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“I don’t know if people get a chance to see how much he and [wife] Deidre do on the human side,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. “They’re tireless fundraisers. They help out in so many different ways around the globe. It’s inspiring.”

The Pujols Family Foundation, with offices in Missouri and Orange County, focuses on supporting families with children living with Down syndrome, and on assistance to his native Dominican Republic.

In 2015, Pujols and Kershaw each captained a Wiffle ball team in a joint fundraiser for their foundations.

“It’s a big priority in his life, if not the biggest: making sure he realizes how important the platform he has been given is, and how he can use that to make a difference,” Kershaw said. “That’s what you hear a lot about when you hear about Albert, which is cool.

“Baseball ends one day, and I think Albert realizes that, but his impact off the field will last a long time.”

His impact on the field will too, his standards etched in the record books.

In his 11 years in St. Louis, he finished in the top 10 in MVP voting every year, in the top five in all but one of those years. He won three times, finished second four times.

“To be that consistent for that period is insane,” Pederson said. “There’s not really anyone to ever do that.”

This is his seventh year in Anaheim. He hasn’t finished in the top 10 in MVP voting once here, and the Angels haven’t won a postseason game with him.

The Cardinals won the World Series twice with Pujols.

“St. Louis? He is loved there,” McGwire said.

“Selfishly, I wish he would have stayed,” Schumaker said.

Pujols took his best deal in free agency, and let he who would leave tens of millions on the table cast the first stone.

But, in St. Louis, Pujols 3K would be a civic holiday, even with this 38-year-old edition of Pujols that scarcely resembles The Machine.

“It would be chaos there,” Schumaker said. “It would be a lot of fun. I think it would be appreciated more, because their fan base is so incredible. I wish that was happening for him there.”

In Anaheim, where Trout and Shohei Ohtani lead the cast, Pujols is a supporting actor. For 3,000 hits, perhaps he can take a star turn.

“I just hope the great county of Orange County can give him love,” McGwire said, “and treat him like it’s St. Louis.”

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter @BillShaikin


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